“Giving people the tools to understand their cases is an important way of transferring power and giving them access to something they should have access to already.”
– Ellie Lapp
Protection Counselor, UNHCR
Hotlines provide essential information about the immigration system, access to resources, referrals and other services to immigrants and their families. They increase the ability of immigrants to navigate the complex U.S. immigration system by building knowledge and community, and helping individuals use laws and policies to advance their right to remain. In turn, immigrants can share and spread their knowledge to others around them, building a network of empowered actors.
Hotlines provide a variety of information. In some cases, they may explain the basic process of a case including how to file motions. They can also provide preliminary case and country-specific information to clients for building their asylum cases. This is especially true for people detained in rural parts of the country where access to pro bono and low-cost legal services is severely limited. In other instances, hotlines act as referral systems, raising awareness of and connecting immigrants to others who can provide greater assistance, such as legal aid organizations, community based organizations, and pro bono lawyers. Some hotlines allow immigrants to report due process violations and fraud, a process of documenting experiences that may lead to structural changes in the system. Hotlines can also help immigrants process trauma and provide access to social support.
Hotline management requires resources. Hotlines highlighted on this site lower costs in a variety of ways through engagement of volunteers, partnership with vendors to provide subsidized shipping for pro se materials to immigrants, and the development of an online database that houses essential immigration-related resources to guide volunteers in answering calls from community members, among other things.
One of the major problems facing immigrants is isolation from information, resources, and services. While the majority of immigrants who live in the United States are located in large cities, there has also been huge growth of rural immigrant populations. In a 2017 study of over 2500 rural places, there was a 130% growth in the immigrant population. While these communities provide jobs and economic opportunities for immigrants, they often lack legal aid bureaus, bi-lingual services, and social organizations, which can be key to integration and accessing information about the immigration system.
Furthermore, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) often operates in a way that instills fear and panic into immigrant communities, even in cities with many resources. Raids can happen early in the morning or late at night, and family members go missing without their loved ones knowing where they are being held in detention. For such crises, it is important for immigrants and their families have immediate support, even if by telephone. Hotlines provide information and access to resources and support for immigrants to defend themselves and their loved ones against deportation and detention. Additionally, immigrants already in detention have severe difficulty accessing resources and information, and being able to contact knowledgeable people who can communicate in their language is essential.
Snapshot of Solutions
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
UNHCR offers a toll free hotline for United States-based asylum seekers that can be called at any time. Those who leave messages will receive a call back during regular business hours. Additionally, for asylum seekers in detention, they operate a toll-free protection hotline Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2pm – 5pm EST with telephonic interpretation available. The protection hotline is accessible by dialing #566 from within detention facilities. This is one of the only hotlines available for free to those detained in ICE facilities. Following the phone calls, UNHCR sends a pro se packet with information about the defensive asylum process, how to file an appeal, parole bonds, and country conditions specific to an individual’s country of origin and fear of persecution. When feasible, the information is provided in the caller’s preferred language. The packet typically arrives to the requester after two weeks but can be expedited for urgent cases.
Grassroots Leadership runs La Linea de Defensa Comunitaria, a bilingual Spanish/English hotline that aims to build solidarity, knowledge, and power of immigrant communities. The hotline, often run by directly impacted community members, provides resources and support to community members in the midst of an unfolding immigration crisis. The hotline is a catalyst for action. It helps people find loved ones in detention centers/jails, facilitates accompaniments, connects community members to pro bono and trusted private attorneys, finds support for basic needs (financial, food, mental health), and offers a way to sign up for Know Your Rights trainings. The hotline ensures that Grassroots Leadership is informed about the most urgent community challenges. Grassroots Leadership creates programs to respond to these needs. The hotline is operated seven days a week by volunteers from 9:00AM to 9:00PM.
Houston Immigrant Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC)
HILSC coordinates the Immigrant Rights Hotline in partnership with Boat People SOS, BakerRipley, United We Dream, Houston Volunteer Lawyers, and The ACLU of Texas. The hotline provides callers with referrals to legal services providers and immigrant rights organizers, contact information for trusted private immigration attorneys, up-to-date information about immigration policies, and warnings about notario fraud. It also serves as a place to report ICE enforcements, discrimination, hate incidents and racial profiling. The hotline is operated by non-profit staff and DOJ accredited representatives who can answer general questions about current immigration laws, rules, and regulations. The hotline is hosted on ring[x] software, and HILSC developed a database on the back-end to help guide the hotline operator as they answer queries that come through. This database houses an impressive array of resources and information and is also connected to a Law Lab feature, which tracks immigration cases and the detained docket. Initial dissemination of the hotline was done through local news, government offices, consulates, and social media.
Beyond Legal Aid
Beyond Legal Aid (Beyond) operates a free hotline available to any immigrant caller without access to an attorney. The Beyond Helpline operates both in English and Spanish and is checked regularly every weekday. All calls are returned for a free immigration screening and legal consultation within 2-7 days, depending on the urgency. The Beyond Helpline exists to combat the fear instigated by ICE, answer questions and provide support for individuals and families who don’t know where else to turn, and connect immigrants to additional legal resources, including Beyond’s community-located, community-operated, and community-directed programs.
Hotlines are one tool that can be used to empower immigrants and help close the justice gap. Legal empowerment demands that the power of the law be within the knowledge and influence of communities, so that they may know, use, and eventually shape the laws that impact their lives. Hotlines provide a gateway to the power of knowledge and resources.
Social Justice + Power
The Justice Power network is convened by NYU School of Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and Global Justice Clinic. The website is part of a multi-year documentation initiative to make visible the powerful impacts of legal empowerment programs to advance the rights of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in the U.S. Interested in joining the network or want to find out more information? Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org